Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
25 Dec 2017Twice Upon A Time, by Simon Moore
08 Jan 2018Twice Upon A Time - Second Review, by Elliot Stewart

Twice Upon A Time - The Doctor Who Christmas Special (Credit: BBC)
"Twice Upon A Time".
Written by Steven Moffat 
Directed by Rachel Talalay

Starring Peter Capaldi, David Bradley,
Mark Gatiss and Pearl Mackie

This review contains spoilers from the Doctor Who Christmas Episode 

 

To be frank, the more recent “Doctor Who” Christmas Specials have somewhat fallen flat in my humble opinion, predominantly due to Steven Moffat’s overreliance upon festive frivolities and holiday humour. Indeed, with the possible exception of Matt Smith’s swansong, "The Time of the Doctor", I haven’t ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ one of these seasonal-themed shows since Russell T Davies’ 2008 masterpiece “The Next Doctor”. I’m also not the greatest fan of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the time-travelling Gallifreyan either, and believe the Scottish actor’s considerable talents were woefully wasted during his first two seasons, and only really came to the fore once he was ably accompanied by characters like Bill Potts and Nardole.

"Twice Upon a Time" however, does not seemingly fall into many of the tinsel-laden traps its predecessors have succumbed to, and instead tells a relatively straightforward story of the Timelord trying to understand whether a company capable of replicating the memories of the deceased should be universally viewed as a villainous malignancy or, somewhat perturbingly for the Doctor, an actual cause for the greater good. In fact, the realisation that this particular adventure specifically occurs on Christmas Day only becomes relevant (and resultantly noticeable) at the episode’s end when it enables the titular lead to engineer a military ceasefire through the manipulation of a few blessed hours of time.

Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of a Timelord desperately seeking peace after two thousand years of life, is also far more watchable (and likeable) than the version who required Clara Oswald’s hastily-written handy cards in “Under The Lake” so as to demonstrate even the smallest amount of compassion and humanity. Despite being tired of living himself, the Doctor isn’t about to stand by and watch a single lone soldier die if he can help it, even when Mark Gatiss’ World War One British officer nobly agrees to sacrifice his life in the belief it will save others. Such natural empathy and warmth on behalf of the Twelfth Doctor was sadly missing through so many of his earliest adventures, so it’s nice to see a far more agreeable attitude being shown throughout his final adventure.

Twice Upon a Time: The First Doctor (David Bradley), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Far more impressive though, has to be David Bradley’s ‘tour de force’ as the First Doctor. For those old enough to remember, I thought Richard Hurndall’s performance in the Twentieth Anniversary special “The Five Doctors” would be hard to beat, yet the star of “An Adventure in Space and Time” effortlessly transforms into the grumpy grandfather’s role and proves a pleasure to watch; even if he is given the majority of Moffat’s less than subtle sexist jokes – ‘smacked bottom’ for Pete's sake… 

Admittedly, some of the “original” Doctor’s athletics are a bit hard to accept. The oldster’s zigzagging in between numerous Dalek disintegration beams as he fast approaches a watchtower belonging to the only ‘good’ Kaled in the galaxy takes a bit of getting used to, and one could certainly never imagine the frail-looking William Hartnell hurling himself from atop the TARDIS onto the ground, even if his fall was cushioned by a sheet of Antarctic snow.

Fortunately, such physicality doesn’t jar too much upon the senses, and are always quickly eclipsed by Bradley’s acting gravitas. In fact, one of the highlights of the story is the heart-wrenching despondency etched upon the old man’s face when he comprehends that he will become “The Doctor of War” his adversary is seeking after. This fate, despite being engineered through the sheer necessity needed in order to fight the universe’s many wrongs, clearly reaches down to the very core of the Timelord’s fears as to what his violent legacy may become should he accept the need to regenerate for the first time, and the Yorkshire man ‘nails’ this inner turmoil on-screen marvellously.

Twice Upon a Time: The Captain (Mark Gatiss), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Mark Gatiss’ Lethbridge-Stewart is similarly an inspiring casting choice, with the English screenwriter putting in a remarkably charming, stiff upper-lipped performance. Such firm fondness for a non-regular character is particularly impressive considering his sombre introduction, trapped inside a bomb blast crater with a wounded German soldier pointing a pistol at him. Yet the World War One Officer (“Sorry… Spoilers.”) soon becomes a decidedly engaging companion, whose baffled bewilderments and naïve nobilities quickly endear him to both the audience and the Twelfth Doctor. It’s certainly a role which seems to far better suit the actor’s strengths than his previous foray into the world of “Doctor Who” as the decidedly over-the-top villain-come-monster Doctor Lazarus.

Plot-wise, "Twice Upon a Time" undoubtedly still suffers from some of Steven Moffat’s infamously head scratching discombobulations, as no-one ever seems to properly rationalise just why the Gallifreyan’s dual contemplation of ‘ending his travels’ causes a participant of the Great War to be erroneously dispatched to the South Pole in the year 1986? There’s also little explanation provided as to just how the universe’s mysterious benefactors ever came to be in a position to extract everyone’s memories just before their moment of death, nor how they developed the technology to travel back in time and do so retrospectively?

Similarly disconcerting, though perhaps understandable given this adventure is supposed to finish with a feel good finale, are the handful of sickly sweet cameos thrust upon the Doctor at the very end of the show. Rusty the Dalek’s somewhat bizarre appearance mid-way through the tale definitely caught me by surprise, but it at least provided a valid contribution to the plot, seeing as how the Matrix no longer existed, and even Mark Gatiss’ revelation that he was Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestor made some sentimental sense. Yet the sudden materialisation of Nardole in No Man’s Land appeared to have been manipulated purely to provide the tenth season TARDIS crew the chance for a last group hug, whilst the ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ manifestation of the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald, was seriously super sugary-strong stuff…

Sadly, this particular Christmas Special also insists on treating the Timelord’s regeneration as an opportunity for the lead actor to perform a lengthy swansong; a trend arguably initiated by Russell T Davies dreadfully drawn-out dramatics for the Tenth Doctor in “The End of Time”. True, Matt Smith’s “like breath on a mirror” speech from “The Time of The Doctor” was memorably magnificent and encapsulated much of his tenure on the television series within the space of a few minutes. However, Peter Capaldi’s soliloquy seemingly comes across as a bit of an emotionless rant, in which the show’s producer appears, once again, to be trying far too hard to be funny or clever, and thus disappointingly causes the Twelfth Doctor’s final moments to be far more reminiscent of his disagreeable early days rather than the more warm, likeable time traveller he has become over the past twelve months.

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Twice Upon a Time: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The First Doctor (David Bradley), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway)) BBC One (United Kingdom):
First Broadcast: Monday 25th December 2017
Nowadays, Doctor Who is a blessed show – whereas thirty years ago, it seemed cursed. After the sacking of a Time Lord the previous year, 1987 saw the show scheduled against a long-running and extremely popular soap opera, while starring a spoon-playing comedy actor who spoke out of his ‘R’s, accompanied by pantomime star Bonnie Langford and children’s television presenter Sophie Aldred.
 
When it returned in 2005 after a long hiatus, the show had evolved, instead of becoming a popular cult success through continued mass appeal. A declaration of love for the Time Lord quickly became a way into a quirky social scene celebration: geek chic rocks.  However, fashion – sadly – is fickle. But the makers of the long-running sci-fi show are well aware of this – so they intentionally reboot the show every few years to ensure they buck the trend of being left behind or dated. Doctor Who is therefore unlike most science fiction franchises; braver than the ever-popular duet of Stars Trek and Wars, it never stays the same show long.
 
But changing all the time is a risky business. Some eras of the so-called “classic” years are held up as “pure” Doctor Who, while others are seen as the show losing its way, being thought of as either too silly or too violent. So when Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor in 2013, a cheer was felt across the fan-base as the show looked like it was returning to roots with an older lead. (Although both David Tennant and Matt Smith gave excellent performances, their appeal was their youthful energy – so Capaldi could be seen as a bit of a risk to the non-fan.)
 
Four years down the line, Twice Upon A Time saw Capaldi’s time as the Doctor come to an end, as well as introducing Jodie Whittaker as – another risk, but this time for fan and non-fan alike – the first female incarnation of the time lord (shock horror!). But before that, there was time enough for one more risk for Capaldi: this time, there’s no evil plan. Instead, similar to Tennant’s or Smith’s departure indulgences, we have the Doctor meet himself to debate whether its time to move on.
Following on from the fan-serving cliffhanger of the Twelfth Doctor encountering his first incarnation, the episode follows the unexpected duo as they quarrel and philosophise about what both the past and future has in store for themselves in a way only Doctor Who can.
 
Unfortunately, although some great humour is found as the more current Doctor finds his early persona less than PC – we all look back and cringe at ourselves in the past, the doctor being no exception – the story itself lacks a hook. We know our modern Doctor is leaving, and the Earth isn’t threatened, so there’s no real concern to the outcome. Even the effect of the Doctor’s emotional reunion with previous companions was severely lacking when it is revealed that they are just memories, rather than the “real thing”.
 
Also, the First Doctor’s desire not to regenerate comes out of nowhere. Just before his final moments, William Hartnell’s original First Doctor dramatically declared “it’s far from being over!” and walked out into the heavy Antarctic snow, determined to reach his ship; that’s an example of powerful acceptance rather than refusal. Bradley’s softer recreation of this scene doesn’t entirely change the meaning. So was hearing the Twelfth Doctor shouting ‘Nooo!’ to the polar skies what changed his mind?
 
Twice Upon a Time: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Throughout the episode, Peter Capaldi gives a superb final performance, as does David Bradley as the First Doctor, although he’s more a homage than a full-on virtual Hartnell. Show writer and occasional actor Mark Gatiss, meanwhile, gives a wonderful final turn as a confused and charming War World One soldier out of time in more ways than one.
 
Being both experimental while at the at the same time oddly similar to his previous episodes, Twice Upon A Time was also the last episode ever to be written by current showrunner Steven Moffat, who has helmed the show since 2010, and written episodes since 2005, and will be stepping down to be replaced by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall. So it was no surprise that the episode featured a few nods to the Moffat era, including an obligatory Dalek cameo and the usual mix of knowing meta moments, both funny and fan servicing.
 
On a technical level, the various worlds and past Earth settings are fantastically realised, as was the all-too-brief recreation of scenes from the First Doctor’s final adventure from 1966. With such effort into detail, I was thinking (indeed, hoping) for a “Back To The Future” approach to the old meeting new – but sadly, for most of the episode, only the two differing TARDIS console rooms show the contrast in the show’s development.
 
As a coda for the explosive previous season’s two-part finale, it works perfectly well: the third and final part of Capaldi’s farewell.  The look, the laughs and occasional dab of poignancy of the episode made up for the narrative lulls. What plot there was – people being alive when they should really be dead – made the episode focus on the parallels being the Time Lord regeneration process, and bringing new life from death. Which was very appropriate, because as with Matt Smith before him, Jodie Whittaker’s fun and surprising entrance, though shorter than previous others, is a clear declaration of a new era in the show: the youthful energy is back.
 
Twice Upon a Time: The Captain (Mark Gatiss), The First Doctor (David Bradley), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Only the Twelfth Doctor’s actual final moments aboard the TARDIS – though exquisitely performed by Capaldi – felt completely indulgent, being more a chance for the Twelfth Doctor to go out speeching than saving a friend, a planet or the universe. Previously, we’ve seen this Doctor emote deeply against war; we’ve seen him plead for help to two versions of his best frenemy, and we’ve seen the heartbreak of him losing the memory of his closest friend. Wouldn’t it be better if we saw him leave as he arrived – cross and ranty?
 
But let’s be fair. As a piece of drama put on as Yuletide seasonal entertainment, it’s very strong. Though not that representative of the Moffat style or even the Capaldi arc, Twice Upon A Time gives a mature wave goodbye to the pure rebel Time Lord realising his war was over and to step aside and let new blood continue the fight. Yes, it is lacking any real sense of peril or threat, but instead, it is witty, moving and at times very sad. Anyone dealing with a family loss at this time of the year might wish it had been more a traditional festive romp with killer Christmas trees or robot santas.
 
But then, that’s the nature of risk – you end up with something you hadn’t had before, and change is good. So here it is: Doctor Who at Christmas. Look to the future – it’s only just begun.
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